Pandemic, Pandemonium, Panic, and Poetry

Crystals, flowers, and fear

The word “pandemic” derives from the Greek words “pan,” meaning “all” and “demos,” meaning “people.”

The etymology of “pandemic” is different but somewhat related to the word “panic,’ which traces back to the French, “panique” and the Greek god Pan, the deity with goat legs, the torso of a man, and goat horns growing from his man-like skull.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Pan became an exceedingly popular god whose name soldiers invoked in the heat of battle. Later, the terror and chaos that arises during war was also associated with this god.

During Roman times, Pan increased in importance, becoming “known as the All, a sort of universal god, which was a play on the other meaning of the word pan.

My husband, a medical news journalist, began covering daily coronavirus reports the last week in January, after our return from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

By mid February, we saw how the virus was spreading like a panic. February 18, the stock market crashed in a virus-related scare, and I began to wonder if AWP would be canceled. But at that point I thought it would be fear mongering to ask my friends if they still planned to go.

Two weeks later, the conference went ahead as planned, but by late February and even into the first week of March, many of my friends decided not to go because they didn’t want to inadvertently bring the virus back to their own communities.

It wasn’t until the first week in March that the pandemic arrived in the county where I live. That week we were already doing “chicken wings” and “foot bumps” as greetings at the yoga studio where I practice. We were spacing ourselves at least six feet apart. The YMCA where I swim laps closed its group exercise programs, swimming lessons, and their child care hours.

The new coronavirus pandemic has also caused pandemonium, Latin for “the place of all demons.” It created “panic buying” among the people, as we raced to stores to buy cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and pantry items.

On Thursday, March 5, I pulled into a Trader Joe’s parking lot after a blissful yoga class. Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s inadvisable to enter a Trader Joe’s parking lot after practicing yoga, just because of the parking lot squeeze.

But I braved suburban car frenzy to buy some wine and a few other items for dinner, and was shocked to find almost the entire store depleted of bread, milk, frozen food, and staples like rice, pasta, and canned goods. (Plenty of beer and wine remained!)

It turned out that while I had been supine in savasana in a state of relaxation, the county school system had announced that schools would close and would transfer to an online platform.

One man in the county had been hospitalized and died, and several school staff members had come down with covid19. Apparently, many individuals had traveled to Italy during February and thus were exposed at airports or at their destinations.

Like “pandemic,” and “panic,” the word “poetry” comes to English from the Greek and Latin. Greeks used poesis and poeitis to denote a maker, an author, a poet.

We are all makers now. We are pan-artists. Some will make songs and stories to express their longings, their fears, their loneliness,

Others will bake bread, make yogurt, and grow gardens, domestic work that many have now recently embraced if they have the privilege of staying home.

I’ve written only two poems so far this month. The concept of April as poetry writing month has lost urgency for me. Poetry and art and all forms of myth-making and meaning-making are a means of spiritual survival now. It’s an ongoing practice that continually renews and sustains me.

Yoga, poetry, painting, long walks, and chopping vegetables are my way of loving the world and loving life. I hope all beings everywhere can look within and find what makes them whole, what heals them.

Poetry Month

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month as a way to bring attention to the importance that poetry plays in our lives.

Last year at this time, I wrote about four or five poems, sharing them each week with a friend, and we would then give each other suggestions for revision or offer an interpretation of how we read the poem.

We’ve agreed to do the same weekly sharing of a new poem during April this year, too, but I can’t find a subject that I want to write about. I know many poets are probably writing about quarantine and social distancing, but that’s not where my mind is as far as writing goes.

I signed up to receive daily writing prompts from Two Sylvias Press, and I’m planning to go back to them at some point, but I can’t find the release valve on my writing brain to let the words just come.

Instead, I catch myself staring out the window for long stretches, watching the new hickory leaves unfurl. I’ve been walking my dog and letting him get filthy in the pond where pollen pools on the surface like a film of a crushed hard boiled egg yolk. I’m washing my hands probably more than I need to, considering the raw, chapped patches on the left hand.

I’ve re-started my personal yoga practice finally, although I have taken a few Zoom classes. It’s hard for me to pin myself down to a specific time to practice now that the classes are streamed live. When I’m home, I don’t usually keep to a schedule.

But maybe a schedule is what I need, especially if I want to beckon my creative mind. Sitting myself at my desk or out on the back porch with a pen and a notebook every day, just like I roll out my mat. Yoga, meditation, and writing are interconnected for me. One leads to another.

As far as The Wasteland goes, last year I was emerging from a painful depression during April, and I agreed with Eliot’s first line that “April is the cruelest month,” though maybe it was for different reasons than his own intentions for writing.

This year April is also a cruel month. Just when the earth is greening in the Northern hemisphere, thousands of people are dying. It’s a sorrow that’s hard to reconcile with the season.

Persona Poems at Palm Beach Poetry Festival

It’s been a month since I returned from Delray and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival held there in the Old School Square, and since then I’ve barely looked at the five poems I started in Adrian Matejka’s workshop.

Matejka is not only a gifted poet, but he’s also a brilliant teacher. We started the week off by reading A. Van Jordan’s essay on ways to enter the writing process of a persona poem, and each day we wrote a different type of poem by following some of Jordan’s guidelines.

The Big Smoke, Matejka’s book-length persona poem collection, explores the life and relationships of boxing legend Jack Johnson. Matejka writes in the voices of Jack Johnson and the women in Johnson’s life, an ambitious project that took eight years of research and writing. It wound up as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved honor.

In the workshop, he told us that the hardest poems for him to write were the ones in the voices of the women, and that he would never attempt to write in a woman’s voice again, not feeling able, artistically, to accurately portray a woman’s psyche in the first person.

Part of this discussion of whose voices to write in involved the subject of cultural appropriation. The week of the poetry festival, American Dirt launched, and with it, the controversy surrounding the white author’s choice to write in the first person about a migrant Latina woman and her struggles to cross into the US.

It was a timely example of the pitfalls of choosing to write in the voice of someone whose life is completely outside our own experiences. Maybe if author Jeanine Cummins had written in the third person, her book would have been more honest. Latinx writers felt justifiably angry that a white author would receive a six-figure advance to tell a story that wasn’t hers to tell.

All of this is to say that it’s no easy task to choose a voice to write in that’s also relevant to the times we’re living in. I tried to create the voice of the Mona Lisa, but gave her a sort of feminist mindset. I also wrote in the voice of a street tarot reader, a crystal ball, and Anne Boleyn, who was accused of applying witchcraft to seduce men who attended her in the court of Henry VIII.

The week in Delray went by in a blur and I was fairly exhausted the entire time, probably because we drove there from Atlanta in one day and didn’t arrive at our Airbnb until close to midnight. Delray is only an hour north of Miami, and has the unfortunate distinction of being close to Mar a Lago. While the festival was going on, the impeachment trial was, too. All of that was an uncomfortable tension buzzing in the background.

The Number Four in 2020

On this gray, cold, drizzly day, I’ve been thinking obsessing about the symbolic meaning of the number 4. What is a poet without obsessions, right?

The year we’ve just entered, 2020, reduces to four.

In Tarot for Your Self, Mary Greer, writing about fours, lists several key words that relate to this number, including “stability, foundations, law and order, conventions of society.”

She goes on to say that the basic conflict of the number 4 is the tension between the desire for security and stability and the desire for change, expansion, and growth.

Four cardinal directions.

Four seasons of the year.

Four weeks in a month.

Four lines in a quatrain.

Four beats to a line, iambic tetrameter.

The Emperor, fourth card of the tarot deck, archetype that includes father, the patriarch.

Carl Jung weaves the number four into his thinking about archetypes and the human psyche.

He identifies four basic archetypes: the Self, the Shadow, the Persona, and the Anima/Animus.

He identifies four functions of the personality: thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation.

For in-depth discussions about these four archetypes, I recommend This Jungian Life, a podcast devoted to exploring the psychology of Carl Jung and its application to contemporary life.

Listening to this podcast led me to Jung’s concept of the quaternity, or groupings of four.

Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon defines a quaternity asan image with a four-fold structure, usually square or circular and symmetrical; psychologically, it points to the idea of wholeness.”

We’re in an Emperor year, but it feels like the Emperor is reversed.

According to Mary Greer, when the Emperor card shows up reversed in a reading, it indicates: “Autocrat. Self-righteous tyranny. Or, weak-willed, unmanly cowardice… Trust betrayed. Failed leader.”

All of these words can be applied to the current occupant of the White House as well as most members of the Republican legislature.

Where can we as a society find the stability, security, and order we seek? How can we heal the planet and also ourselves? By integrating our shadow and becoming whole. By reconfiguring old patriarchal values, a square pillar, into a circle divided by a cross, a mandala for wholeness, stability through inter connectivity.

By Tibetan, Central Tibet, Tsang (Ngor Monastery), Sakya orderDetails of artist on Google Art Project – qQErBDO0BtuQsQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76936937

The Yoga Teacher Leads the Women in Camatkarasana In the Time of Fetal Heartbeat Bills

The Yoga Teacher Leads the Women in Camatkarasana In the Time of Fetal Heartbeat Bills

Nothing is born and nothing dies, she says.
Wheels of light keep spinning, circles
of energy that turn through the spine.
As you arch the back from root to crown,
cinch the energy with your rad corsets–
light your abdomen and lumbar from within.
Indigo waves pulse at my third eye, in sync
with Tibetan bowls and gongs sounding
in the background, a flashpoint of understanding,
a head rush. Ground your feet, she says,
shine your heart toward the sky, extend
one arm to the clouds. You’re wild things,
wheels of astonishment glittering in the sun

***

This is a poem of resistance in the face of State efforts to curtail women’s rights over their own bodies. I wrote it when this bill was passed in Georgia and elsewhere, and although a judge has placed an injunction on applying this law in Georgia until the case is settled, another case in LA is heading to the Supreme Court. It’s hard to stay focused on each limitation, each attempt to oppress the people, so in this poem, I focus on internal liberation, available to each one of us.

Camatkarasana photo

The Three Souls Tarot Prompt from POPcraft

Tarot Card Spread from a prompt at Pretty Owl Poetry

Pretty Owl Poetry is calling for submissions of poetry prompts based on the Tarot. I decided to write a poem based on their prompt, but going forward, I might try my hand at an original prompt.

[The Camino Spills Across the Highlands]

The Camino spills across the highland
after crossing Basque Country mountains.
Poppies constellate gilded barley fields,
blood-red blossoms fibrillating like hearts
against the sky. So close to the sun here.
The astonishment of flower-comets
wilts with the heat, the weight of all the miles,
if I can remember the way home, no map
but the riddles spelled in the stars.

Process:

I didn’t look up the traditional meaning behind the cards, but tried to intuit the actions in each one and told a little story that the cards reflected to me.

I’m in the middle of writing a collection of poems about a pilgrimage I took to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, so when I saw the Page of Pentacles, my mind went to the moors in Spain and the delight of seeing the poppies in the fields.

The following three-step, three-card prompt, “The Three Souls,” is by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer. Please go to https://prettyowlpoetry.com/2019/05/14/popcraft-the-three-souls/ for a complete description.

The words in boldface come from Kimberly’s prompt. The words in italics are my impressions of the cards.

1.Mind of the poem, Page of Pentacles: awe and childlike or youthful curiosity at the beginning of a journey. Finding a treasure in a field.

2.Structure (body)– The Ten of Wands: The burden of gathering all ten wands, leaning into the labor, struggling against the work. The poem is bunched together in ten lines of ten syllables each to reflect the number ten and also the bunched up wands the man is carrying.

3.Spirit— The Chariot: The future is an enigma (Sphinx) that draws the chariot. The stars above are his only guide. He is a messenger of the gods (caduceus, symbol of Hermes). He’s leaving the comforts of home behind, unafraid.

April, Poetry, Jericho Brown, and NaPoWriMo 2019

Along with the fiery nature of Aries and the blossoming of spring comes April and National Poetry Month in the US.

One of my main inspirations has been the poetry of Jericho Brown and his new collection, The Tradition.

His essay about invention (titled “Invention”) and how writing poetry was how he confronted the panic of possible death has also inspired me to write every day. Poetry is a means of survival.

I’ve been trying to write at least some lines of poetry every day as a challenge to extract myself from the mini-depression I went through this winter.

Winter was dark, rainy, muddy. Even in March, depression clung to me, like sticky hands holding me down.

When the sticky webs started to feel like a cocoon, I understood on a more personal level TS Eliot’s opening lines in The Waste Land:

   April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers

To cope with the intense melancholy and anxiety, I started thinking of the time between winter solstice and spring equinox as a period of germination.

I was a seed in protective darkness, no need for the light, even if I did crave sunlight and walked my dog whenever the sun was out, no matter how cold.

Once the clocks changed and the days grew longer in March, I wasn’t ready to emerge from the safety of my protective shell, the haven of my bed, the soft armchair, the warm kitchen and the making of soups.

Even though I’ve taken the semester off from teaching, an unpaid sabbatical so to speak since I’m an adjunct professor, I haven’t been working on my manuscript about my travels in Spain.

The stickiness is still there, but the fire is returning. I’ve been writing new, unrelated poems to revitalize my creativity.

Jericho Brown’s “Duplex” series and the form he has invented (read them in his new book!) have opened up more pathways for me and others. He is a true bard, an oracular young poet who keeps astounding the world with his human songs.

I also realize that it’s somewhat problematic that I’m using Jericho Brown’s wholly original poetic form because I am a white woman. I’ve lived a protected life. As Brown says about his form,

What is a Jericho Brown sonnet? Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world. I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?

In his essay he goes on to describe his process, explaining that his duplex form carries traces of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues. That the couplets grew from lines he had written and saved from as long as fifteen years ago.

What I want to make clear is that I’m writing in Jericho Brown’s form because I find it beautiful and musical, but I won’t try to profit from his inventions in any way, such as trying to publish a duplex in a poetry journal.

Here are my two attempts at the duplex, written over the last two days:

Everyday Mysticism

I walk to where the creek water pools
To see the smooth darkness of its surface

To see the smooth darkness of its surface
Is to behold a circle with no circumference

This circle with no circumference contains
A benevolent silence, a suspension of time

This benevolent silence, this suspension of time
Is what I’m seeking when I’m alone on the trail.

When I’m alone on the trail, the dark water
Stills, impenetrable, until I peer over the bridge

Peering over the bridge, a carnation tree weeps
Its petals onto the glassy skin of the creek

The pink petals fracture the surface–a mosaic–
My reflection where the creek water pools

***

I See Hawks

This day is a glass fishing float
Suspended in a net of clouds

Suspended in a net of clouds,
mineral smells of the river

In the mineral smells of the river
A hawk appears again. I’m tired

Of hawk sightings. I’m tired
Of omens, of signs that point to what?

Harbingers that point to what
I won’t fathom. A poem should have words

To fathom this–this net that suspends
The world, this day floating in blue glass

Pathway Through Depression by Christine Swint

First Tarot Reading

I received the Oceanic Tarot by Jayne Wallace as a Christmas present from one of my sons. It’s a beautiful deck that appeals to my love of water and swimming, and it provides simple, positive explanations for each of the cards. This morning I did my first reading with it.

In fact, it was the first reading I’ve ever done. Even though the tarot has always fascinated me, I’ve only used individual cards as writing prompts, and I’ve never taken the time to learn the symbolism or history behind them.

My interpretation of this three-card reading, which pertains to past, present, and future, is the following:

I need to let go of the guilt I feel about taking a semester off from teaching English. Devoting time to healing from depression, regaining my energy, spending time with family and friends, and completing my current poetry project are more than worthy endeavors–following this path is lifesaving, at least for now.

Time for reflecting on my relationship with my father and also with all the people I met on the Camino will help me finish the poems I’ve been writing for the last three and a half years.

Time for practicing yoga, reading about Ayurveda, balancing my doshas.

Time for writing in community with fellow poets online–

Thank you to Dave Bonta and Kelli Agodon for continuous motivation and opportunities for building online friendships.

Inter-National Poetry Month

This past week the semester cranked up again after Spring break, so I didn’t have as much time to write every day. I’m going to spend part of my day today revising my journey-to-nowhere rhyming poem from last week.

Instead of my own writing, I thought I’d share books I’ve read this week and other inspirations.

On long walks I’ve been listening to conversations about poetry on poet Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace. Her interviews with accomplished poets are intimate, in-depth, and engaging. So far I’ve listened to interviews with Sharon Olds and Tyehimba Jess.

Jess’s interview is particularly enlightening because it offers many pathways into gaining a better understanding of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Olio.  The interview is almost two hours long, but it’s captivating, especially if you have a copy of the book on your lap while listening.

In the interview Jess cites his TEDXTalk where he reads his sonnet sequence about the McKoy twins. Since he provides visuals, you don’t need a copy of the book to follow along.

After listening to Rachel Zucker’s long conversation with Sharon Olds, I felt liberated. Sharon Olds seems to live in a kind of poetic trance state that resonates with me. She speaks of how she pays attention to the fleeting thoughts that come to her, the thoughts we humans have a tendency to sweep under the rug. Her words gave me insight into how to go deeper into what I truly think about myself and the world and to try to put those thoughts into my writing.

I know I hold back a lot. The hardest part of writing and of living in general is to sift through received notions about the world and to instead open up to infinite possibilities. As Alan Watts states in his lecture series Out of Your Mind, the hardest part of life [and art] is “how to create a controlled accident.” Art is the interpretation of life as it is passes through the artist. Here’s a lecture called “How to Be a Creative Artist.”

Fourth Leg of the Journey-to-Somewhere Poem

Whenever I think of the word “NaPoWriMo” I confuse the write part with rhyme. I hear it as NaPoRhyme–O. I would like to get rid of the National part of this abbreviated term, because the word national has taken on sinister connotations in the era we are now living in. Poet Dave Bonta calls it  “(Inter-) National Poetry Month,” which I find much more inclusive and holistic.

In the spirit of my rhyme-O confusion, I’m continuing my just-for-the-fun-of-it rhyme scheme, trying not to censor myself. Here are today’s eight lines, still following the ABACCBCA scheme:

4.

Today I found the plaster Virgin with Child,
Her mountaintop avatar wound with plastic rosary beads
Left in offering. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
My father taught me to pray, but the incantations didn’t stick,
Maybe because of the good swift kick
He said I needed, and then gave, seeds
Of my future rebellions– Wiccan symbols, Celtic
Knots I traced in the dirt at Mary’s feet, the wind wild.

If you want to read the first three stanzas, go here and here.

The setting of this journey poem is the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees.